Alexa Irene Canady
November 7, 1950
Lansing, Michigan, U.S.
|Education||University of Michigan|
|Occupation||Pediatric neurosurgeon, educator|
|Known for||first American woman and first black person to become a neurosurgeon|
Alexa Irene Canady (born November 7, 1950) is a retired American medical doctor specializing in neurosurgery. She was born in Lansing, Michigan and earned both her bachelors and medical degree from the University of Michigan. After completing her residency at the University of Minnesota in 1981, she became the first black person to become a neurosurgeon. This came after the first American woman was board certified in Neurosurgery in 1960. Canady specialized in pediatric neurosurgery and was the chief of neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital in Michigan from 1987 until her partial retirement in 2001. In addition to surgery she also conducted research and was a professor of neurosurgery at Wayne State University. After her retirement, she moved to Florida and maintained part-time practice at Pensacola's Sacred Heart Hospital until her full retirement in January 2012. In 1989, Canady was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame, and in 1993 she also received the American Medical Women's Association President's Award. Dr. Canady was known amongst her peers as a patient-focused surgeon who cared deeply about each of her patients.
Alexa Irene Canady was born in Lansing, Michigan to Elizabeth Hortense (Golden) Canady and Dr. Clinton Canady, Jr. Her mother was an educator and former national president of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She also spent years being active in civic affairs within the city of Lansing and her father a dentist. Her parents attended Fisk University, where they met and later married on her mother's 18th birthday right before her father's deployment during World War II. Her father is also a graduate of Dentistry of Meharry Medical College and her mother is a graduate of Fisk University. Canady's parents taught her about the importance of education and hard work as a child, which would ultimately help her graduate from high school with honors.
Canady and her younger brother were raised outside of Lansing and were the only two African-American students in their school. Her mother being a former President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. and her father a dentist, she was taught the importance of education from an early age. Her mother once told her, "Let them make you the token — so what if you're the token black girl. Take that token and spend it." She faced prejudice in school, in one instance, a family member who was training in psychology tested her at a young age for intelligence, when she scored highly on the exam, her family was surprised because her performance in school was only average. They later discovered that her teacher had been switching her test scores with a white student to cover up her intelligence.
They faced many obstacles throughout their school years. However, despite these obstacles, Canady stood out among her peers academically, both in the classroom and by earning high scores on her tests in school. Before university, Alexa Canady was nominated as a National Achievement Scholar in 1967. Dr. Canady attended the University of Michigan where she received her B.S. degree in zoology in 1971 and became a member of Delta Sigma Theta. Her time at the University of Michigan was not without its struggles, she almost dropped out of college at one point due to a "Crisis of Confidence", but learned of a minority scholarship for in medicine and decided to pursue it. She would then go on to receive her M.D. with cum laude honors  from the University of Michigan Medical School in 1975. In medical school, Canady felt as if she, and the other female students, were often overlooked by the professors. This only encouraged her to work harder. Although she initially had an interest in internal medicine, Dr. Canady decided on neurosurgery after falling in love with neurology during her first two years of medical school. She settled on this specialty against the recommendations of her advisors. Knowing that gaining a residency as a black student would be difficult, Canady began building her résumé, reading countless articles and attending every conference and seminar she could, sometimes asking questions just to get known in the small field. Her vast appreciation for the fluidity of human anatomy would serve her well in her competitive field.
She then became a surgical intern at the Yale-New Haven Hospital from 1975-1976, rotating under Dr. William F. Collins. Although being an exceptional student, she still faced prejudice and discriminative comments as she was both the first black and female intern in the program. On her first day as an intern, she was told that “you must be our new equal-opportunity package”. Despite these prejudices, she was voted one of the top residents by her fellow physicians.
After completing her internship, she went to the University of Minnesota for her residency, becoming the first female African-American neurosurgery resident in the United States. Although she has stated that she wasn't focused on the history she was making, after moving to Pensacola, Fl in 2001, she realized the significance of her accomplishments and what it meant for other African-Americans and women in medicine.
In 1982, after finishing residency, Dr. Canady decided to specialize as a Pediatric neurosurgeon, becoming the first African-American and the first Woman to do so. She chose pediatrics because of her love of the children in the pediatric ward during her residency stating “it never ceased to amaze me how happy the children were”. As a patient-focused surgeon, she was known to play videogames with her pediatric patients and form relationships with each patient.
She started practicing for a short time at the Henry Ford Hospital before going to work at the Children's hospital of Michigan. She then became the first African-American woman to be a board-certified Neurosurgeon in 1984. She became Chief of Neurosurgery at the Children's Hospital of Michigan in 1987 and held the position until her partial retirement in 2001. During her time as Chief, she specialized in congenital spinal abnormalities, hydrocephalus, trauma and brain tumors. While initially she was worried about how she would be received by her peers, she quickly gain admiration for being a patient-care focused surgeon. In a recent interview she states, “It’s fun to make people better”.
During her years at the Children's Hospital of Michigan, Dr. Canady also continued research with Wayne State University. She served as a Professor of Neurosurgery there as well. Her work and accomplishments have opened the door for many surgeons to be of all races and genders. From 2001 to her retirement in 2012, Dr. Canady worked as a part-time surgeon and consultant at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, Fl. After moving to Pensacola, Dr. Canady initially considered herself retired. However, after meeting local doctors and realizing the need for a pediatric neurosurgeon in the area, Dr. Canady decided to join the staff at Sacred Heart Hospital, working part-time. In addition to her career as a surgeon, Dr. Canady continued to do research with Wayne State University. This research would eventually lead to the development of an antisiphon shunt that helps to treat hydrocephalus. In a recent interview on why she thinks students should choose neurosurgery she states, "It's intellectually challenging, you get kind of a high when everybody says 'ah, the neurosurgeon is here'". Dr. Canady continues to be both an advocate for her profession as well as diversity in medicine.
Canady was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1989. Canady received the American Medical Women's Association President's Award in 1993 and in 1994 was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from Wayne State University Medical School. In 1984 she was named Teacher of the Year by Children's Hospital of Michigan. She received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1986. She is a member of the Congress of Neurological Surgeons, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, the Society of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and the American college of Neurosurgery.
She has also been awarded three honorary degrees – doctor of humane letters honorary degrees from the University of Detroit-Mercy in 1997 and Roosevelt University in 2014, and a doctor of science from the University of Southern Connecticut in 1999.
Dr. Canady was also featured in a Nickelodeon Black History Month short animation that aired in February 2015 to celebrate her achievement of being the first African-American Woman to become a Neurosurgeon.
Dr. Canady has stated that she doesn't like getting attention or being famous. Rather she has said that if you do good work, the rest doesn't matter.
induction into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1989
In 1993, she received the American Medical Women’s Association President’s Award and in 1994 the Distinguished Service Award from Wayne State University Medical School.